As we all know, Whole Foods has taken over as the central provider of supposedly safe and nutritious food for urban consumers in the U.S. While Whole Foods' advertising touts their importance in the safe food movement that is sweeping the country; their product line remains somewhat sketchy. As I was shopping in one of their Cambridge, Massachusetts stores the other day I could not help but noticing that more than half of their fresh produce was not organic, but instead was labeled "conventional". Also puzzling was the overwhelming amount of "natural" processed food versus organic processed food.
We know what organic means. Organic farmers agree to be regulated and inspected by a third party inspector. Farmers agree not to use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and not to plant genetically modified seeds. Organic processors agree not to use synthetic ingredients, including toxic preservatives and genetically modified ingredients.
But, what do they mean by "conventional", and what does "natural" really mean?
There are currently no regulations on what "conventional" produce is. Of course, what conventional really means is that vegetables, fruits, and nuts are produced with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. "Natural" is just as deceptive, and since there are no regulations governing what "natural" is, they can use any manner of toxic ingredients or additives, and they do. So, why doesn't Whole Foods call "conventional" and "natural" foods chemical or toxic?
Duh! People come to Whole Foods for foods they believe are safe and nutritious, not dangerously toxic.
I have argued for years that we need government warnings at the point of purchase for crops that are grown with toxic chemicals. As with tobacco, we need a Surgeon Generals warning on many of our favorite foods.
Let's just look at a few products that Whole Foods sells that are called "conventional", and you decide for yourself whether Whole Foods advertizing is honest or somewhat deceptive, and whether we do need Surgeon General's warnings on our food.
Most of the strawberries, carrots, and peaches in the U.S. come from California, so I have used their data to illustrate what is really on those "conventional" foods in Whole Foods markets. The data in the Surgeon General's warnings are from the California EPA, the U.S. EPA, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and the Environmental Working Group.
Strawberry shortcake anyone?
Peach cobbler for dessert!
Why don't we see this information on these fresh "conventional" products at Whole Foods? Why don't we see this information in all the markets? How can we make an informed choice about what foods to buy without this information?
In the regulatory coma that the FDA, the USDA, and the EPA have been in, we all need to be careful with our food choices. And, clearly, that is why more and more folks are shopping at Whole Foods; they think they are being careful and protective of their families.
And, what about processed products with the "natural" label? The ingredients in "natural" products made from tomatoes, peaches, carrots, strawberries, corn, oats, wheat, spelt and dozens of other crops were grown with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. Most of the cereals, flours, breads, canola oils, and pastries are produced with genetically modified grains, whether they are in Whole Foods or your neighborhood supermarket. Why? Because 96% of canola, 80% of corn, 98% of soy, and 95% of cottonseed produced in the U.S. is grown with genetically modified seed. As a result, 75-80% of processed food has genetically modified ingredients, including "natural" foods sold at Whole Foods.
When I am not on the farm and in the city I'll continue to shop at Whole Foods, because there are precious few other places where I can buy organically grown safe foods. But, buyer beware, "conventional" is NOT safe. "Natural" is NOT safe, even if it is peddled by Whole Foods. Or is it Half Foods?
Will Allen is a farmer, a writer and an anti-war and civil rights activist. He currently farms in Vermont at Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center.